Wednesday, May 28, 2014

BC Teachers' Wage & Class size proposals: Myths & Realities

I wrote the original version of this post in January 2012, during our last contract negotiations. Since then, teachers have had two more years of zero increases (2012, 2013). Here is an updated version - more relevant than ever.

BC teachers are in contract negotiations asking for a fair deal. What do we mean by fair exactly? 

Teachers are focused on two priorities: class size/composition, and salary.

As far as class size, we want only what was taken in 2002. We want the government to go back to the class sizes in place at that time and restore the funding so Boards can achieve this. We want what the Supreme Court of British Columbia said is rightfully due to us and BCs students in January this year, but is now under appeal from the government.

Some in the media are suggesting we need to "compromise". While I accept that premise in respect of wages (as does the BCTF bargaining team), as far as class size goes, it really is unfair. Imagine if someone came and stole your house. You argue that you should get it back because it was stolen. You go to court and the court says you should get it back. Is the fair solution to give the thief half your house? This is what "compromise" means for class size.

With respect to salary, teachers want to "keep up" and "catch up". What do we mean by that? We want to keep up with inflation, and we want to catch up with Canadian teachers in other provinces. Teachers in BC now rank near the bottom in salaries across Canada, despite the fact that our cost of living is one of the highest and that BC weathered the recession better than most other provinces. BC has been out of recession since 2010 and is experiencing moderate growth.

The government wants teachers to take 6.5% over six years. The government claims that taxpayers cannot afford higher increases to public sector wages and that wages must remain flat because the government "can't afford it".

Do these arguments make sense? Are they justified? Or should teachers just accept the government offer? Here are my answers to these questions.

Myth #1: Teachers should not get much of a wage increase because the government can't afford it

Reality #1: There was no deficit when the Liberals took power in 2001. Through a series of income tax cuts and corporate tax cuts, the Liberals went from a surplus to a deficit. Yes, the recession of 2009 impacted government revenues. But not as much as tax cuts have. Moreover, the government has found plenty of money for spending when it feels the spending is a priority. There was money for the BC Place roof ($500 million). There was money for the Olympics (over $1 billion). There was money for smart meters ($900 million). There was money for new government network systems ($1.2 billion to Telus). There seems to be plenty of money for the CEO's of crown corporations like BC Ferries (David Hahn's pension value - over $10 million).

More recently, there was money for 18% pay increases to Christy Clark's top aides in government. The fact is that the government is using the deficit that it created as an excuse to take money away from public services and the people who provide them. The money is there. It is a matter of priorities.

It is simply unfair to make one group of workers pay for a deficit created by tax cuts to other people and corporations. Private sector workers are seeing increases. Other public sector workers are seeing increases  and notably have had increases in the last two years when teachers took zero.  Moreover how is it fair to make middle income earners pay for tax cuts that disproportionately benefited the wealthy and corporations? It just isn't.

Myth #2: Teachers should accept what other public sector workers have taken (follow the "pattern")

Reality #2: The government likes to compare us to two public sector unions - BCGEU and HEU. If they honestly calculated a "pattern" among all public sector workers, it would be clear there is great variation. Let's take BC nurses as an example. Here is a spreadsheet on the BC government web site showing nurses wage increases since 1974. While teachers have had zeros since our last increase of 2% on July 1, 2010, in the same time nurses have had 4% of increases after their 2010 bump of 4.2%. So since January 2010, nurses had a total of 8.2% while teachers had 2%. This is a pretty different "pattern". Similarly, while CUPE/BCGEU/HEU has taken a lower prospective salary deal, they are also coming off of two years with 2/2 or 2/1.5. So if they agree(d) to take something lower for the next four years, that has to be in the context of their last two years as well.

Collective bargaining allows both sides to make arguments about salary given the time and circumstances. This may differ across sectors. The government certainly doesn't insist on a "pattern" unless it wants to point to the lowest common denominator and insist that it is the only "pattern" around. 

And they never compare those of us doing front line jobs with the "pattern" in management and for MLAs. Let's not forget the massive pay hikes for MLAs in 2007 that reached the double digits - as high as 48%.

Myth #3: BC teachers already have high salaries

Reality #3: After five years of university training, BC teachers begin with a wage in the mid $40's, if they are full time. Many teachers only get part time work for the first 3-5 years of their career. It takes ten years of full time work to reach the maximum salary, which is about $75,000 for most teachers. BC teachers rank near the bottom in Canada compared to teachers in other provinces. A teacher at the top of the salary scale in BC earns on average $20,000 less than a comparably experienced teacher in Alberta and $15,000 less than one in Ontario. Yet BC has the highest cost of living and the highest housing prices in the country.

Myth #4: The numbers

Reality #4: The numbers explained (warning - math reading ahead!)

Teachers' last wage proposal (April 30) is for an across the board increase in each of the four years as follows: 3, 2.75, 2.5, 2.5. This adds up to 10.75% In addition, the proposal includes a "cost of living" adjustment based on a portion of the Cost Price Index rate for the previous twelve months. In the first year, it is .5 times the CPI, in the remaining four years .75 times the CPI. So if the CPI were 1% in year one, the cost of living adjustment would be .5%. If the CPI remained at 1% for all four years, the total COLA increases would be 3.25%. Add these together to get the BCTF number widely quoted in the media of 13.5%

The rationale for the teachers' wage proposal is to "catch up and keep up". The basic wage increases are the catch up portion. They are aimed at bringing teachers back to the middle of the pack in terms of teacher wages across Canada, phased in over four years. The cost of living adjustments are to ensure that the wage does not decline in "real dollars" due to inflation. Given that the proposal is for below the CPI, it is still possible the "catch up" would be reduced if there were strong inflationary pressures. In other words, if inflation is high, we would still be significantly behind our Canadian colleagues.

BCPSEA is using the figure 15.9% to describe the teachers' proposal (or in their loaded wording "demand"). I believe they are using 1.5% for their CPI estimates. But that still only brings us to a total of 14.875%. So perhaps they are applying some compounding to the numbers? I don't know. If they are, it is disingenuous, as no other figures (such as the notorious "pattern") are compounded. But regardless, which CPI estimate is reasonable?

The CPI average for the year in April 2014 was indeed 1.5%. This is probably the source of BCPSEA's number.

But the actual proposal indicates that the CPI number to be used is for the January - December period. Since the agreement would come into force as of the expiration of the previous agreement, the first application would be for the CPI for 2013. Since this is negative, there would be no COLA increase for the first year. In some respects, the CPI rates are hard to estimate...they vary quite a lot. But the average for the last five years was .94%. For the last ten the number is 1.43%. See the CPI rates here.

A reasonable thing to say is that if inflation averages that of the last five years, 13.5% is the better estimate. If inflation averages that of the last ten years, 14.875% is the better estimate. In neither case is 15.9% the right number. 

Moreover, if the 10.75% "catch up" brings us back somewhere to the "middle of the pack" of teacher salaries across Canada, the roughly 3 - 5% cost of living adjustment will still be behind what those other salaries will be increasing, looking at recent agreements like Saskatchewan, where they will go up 7.3% in the same time period.

Finally, if we take BCPSEA's CPI estimate together with their offer of 6.5% over six years, we see that they are offering a wage cut. At that estimate, just inflation would be 9%.

Myth #5: Teachers are asking for too much

Reality #5: Teachers want to keep up with inflation. Teachers want to catch up with their colleagues in other provinces. Teachers have taken seven years of zero increases since 1998 (in 1998, 1999, 2004, 2005, 2011, 2012, 2013). This leaves us far behind, and is why we are ranked near the bottom across Canada for teacher salaries. Teachers traded salary for smaller class sizes and those class size provisions were later eliminated. It is perfectly reasonable to ask for cost of living increases and wage adjustments to catch up with our Canadian colleagues. Teachers have seen their net pay go down in both real and inflationary terms. Like other workers, we are paying more for MSP premiums, more for CPP and EI, more for gas and food, and taking home less. In addition, teachers in the lower mainland, in particular, face some of the highest costs of anywhere in Canada.

Myth #6: Class size and composition will cost $1 billion

Reality #6: The best estimate for the cost of class size provisions to be returned to the collective agreement comes from government itself in it's submission to the courts. That estimate is $275 million (see para 335 for Treasury Board costing of savings introduced by eliminating class sizes), in 2002 dollars. So perhaps in the order of $350 million today. Certainly not $1 billion. I haven't seen any justification of this number by the government.


  1. teachers deserve everything they are asking for in my books, they are teaching your children the best they can with the class sizes and no support from gov't, who doesn't seem to care, while they are getting their raises with no problem, and don't do half the work teachers do, period????? get it????

  2. Check out this link to an interview that aired this on CBC radio. Diane Whitmore-Schanzenbach is an Economist that studies education policy at North Western University in Chicago. She speaks about class sizes and directly refutes Fassbender's assertion that class size doesn't matter and has no effect on kids.
    “But when we think about the costs and benefits of educational intervention such as class size reduction we really need to think about the long term impact that having higher quality education systems brings to the economy over the long term.”

    Click to listen:

  3. Thanks - yes - I haven't touched even on the work teachers do and it's value to society...

  4. This could be very interesting reading. It’s really unfortunate that the first Reality is quite misleading. The writer states “Reality #1: There was no deficit when the Liberals took power in 2001. Through a series of income tax cuts and corporate tax cuts, the Liberals went from a surplus to a deficit.” First off, deficit and debt are two different things so we shouldn’t confuse them. The debt was definitely there in 2001 and for years and years prior as well as today. The deficit refers to the amount that year’s planned expenditures exceed the planned income. Every year the preceding government was in power there was a deficit. In 2000 the government had planned a deficit budget. My recollection is that as a result of an unforeseen and unplanned massive spike in the purchase of BC power by California, there was a massive windfall of money into the provincial coffers. That resulted in a surplus year. It did not come about as a result of any government planning or intelligence. So presenting the idea that the Liberal gov’t brought about deficit financing in 2001 after a surplus year is quite misleading. As a result I stopped reading at Myth #1. If it is misleading, the rest may well be. It is unfortunate as the balance of the article may be quite accurate. This observation does not lessen my distaste for the government's approach to "bargaining". I am simply pointing out that including less than unbiased information in an argument weakens or nullifies the argument.

    1. Of course I am biased, but I do try not to be misleading. With respect to the tax cut/deficit argument, here is a more detailed analysis:

    2. Tara,
      The article you have linked to appears to be the source of the confusion regarding the difference between debt and deficit.
      If you go to

      and look under Provincial Details you can download the report for BC. You will see there the stats that show what I was talking about. You will also see that the Tyee article doesn’t appear to understand the difference between debt and deficit.

      Page 2 of the Provincial Details report shows the Provincial Budget Balances since 1981. You can see how the NDP were running deficit budgets every year save 2000 where the windfall occurred. Page 9 shows the net provincial debt. I cannot locate a link to the actual deficit budget the NDP put forth in 2000.

      Here is a link to the lawsuit the State of California launched against BC Hydro for the money made in 2000/01.

      It appears you have based some of your article on information from the Tyee article. That article clearly appears to be less than accurate in its reporting of the facts at the time. It’s unfortunate that the strength of your arguments have been undermined by what appear to be errors in the article you drew upon.

    3. Eric, forgive what you see as an error and read the rest of her article.

  5. Kevin, I refrained from taking a close look at the links you provided refuting, in essence, the entirety of Tara's post. If she was mislead by a link online to the Tyee, I suspect that most links online will be suspect. I respectfully cannot read the ones you point to at risk of being mislead.

    As for the post itself, when it comes down to the myths specifically related to the current job action (as apposed to background like debit vs deficit) I couldn't agree more. I personally find the careful language employed by Ms. Clark and Mr. Fassbender through this process insulting.

    I am married to a teacher. Her family are all teachers. Eight of them altogether. this is destroying them, their inspiration and their resolve. In the past ten years my wife spends no less than 10 hours a week marking. Until the last couple of years, no less than 30 extra hours at home banging out report cards for each reporting period. Her time at school averaged 10.5 hours per day.

    Every year for the last 10 or so years her and I have invested up to $4,000 per year into supplies for her classroom. A few years ago I realized that just within our family of teachers 2 other couples do the same and at roughly the same amount. Where is the accountability on the part of our elected officials to really see and understand what is going on and to negotiate a fair deal?

    I am also further discouraged by the the reaction by some of the public.